Gaming evolution

Carl Zimmer has a NY Times article today on “Spore”, a video game that let’s you “evolve” life forms from single-celled organisms up to modern-day complexity. It’s “Spore” because the seeds arrive on a meteorite in an ancient Earth.

If you kill them, you unlock their parts, Dr. [Thomas] Near explains. But then the purple worm sticks its syringelike mouth into Dr. Nears beast and begins to drain its innards. Uh-oh, Im about to die, he says. The screen fades to black.
The next time, Dr. Nears luck changes. He gains enough points to move to the next level of the game. His creature grows a brain. Oh man, its like I graduated college, he says.

No, I would say it’s like you’re still in college and never going to graduate at this rate. Sorry, been there, done that.

The occasion for the article is a National Geographic Channel documentary on the game, letting evolutionary biologists encounter its inner workings. Sounds interesting, although the results are sort of predictable: A fun game probably is not going to look much like real evolution:

Evolutionary biologists like Dr. Near and Dr. Prum, who have had a chance to try the game, like it a great deal. But they also have some serious reservations. The step-by-step process by which Spores creatures change does not have much to do with real evolution. The mechanism is severely messed up, Dr. Prum said.

I’ve often thought it would be a good undergraduate project to study Sid Meier’s “Civilization” and its relationship to real archaeological patterns of change. The point is not that they should correspond; but that the assumptions underlying the game’s model might predict things that are disconfirmed in the real world. But I can’t quite bring myself to contribute to the delinquency of a student.

Zimmer uses “Spore” as a point of departure to write about modeling and game theory – although game theory shares nothing but its name with the computer game, which is a simulation of morphological change. The game seems to be most interesting as a simulacrum of evo-devo ideas about recycling programs and building from common elements.

UPDATE (2008/09/02): Carl writes:

Thanks for the blog on Spore. As for the timing of the article, the TV show is less salient than the release of the game itself, which will come out on Friday.